The last time Newcastle United played against Sunderland was just a bit over two years ago. Just earlier in that month, Rafa Benitez had taken the post at Newcastle after Steve McClaren’s particularly tumultuous reign.
The race against time had just begun. Everyone wondered if Rafa Benitez could carry a struggling United side out of the grave that McClaren had dug.
Both parties involved in the Tyne-Wear Derby are always motivated to get the upper-hand over their counterpart. But when the two clubs met in March of 2016, the rivalry was made even more nervy (if that’s even possible) by the threat of relegation.
As Mitrovic came on as a sub in front of a sold-out St. James Park with Newcastle trailing, all eyes fell on the stocky, steely-eyed striker. At that moment, Newcastle needed their striker more than ever before. This was his chance to prove himself to Rafa Benitez.
Vurnon Anita found Gini on the wing, and he delivered a peach of a ball. Mitrovic rose up highest and guided it into the back of the net. The ensuing roar of Mitrovic was met rightfully by Newcastle United fans and St. James Park was as loud as it could be.
The way in which Mitrovic secured that goal was particularly symbolic. At that moment, Mitrovic rose head and shoulders above the cloud of doubt that surrounded him as a player. For the longest time, critics questioned him and he had given a resounding answer.
What happened next ensured that Mitrovic would always have his share of followers among the Newcastle faithful. After being knocked unconscious, he attempted to get back on the pitch. While the match was nearing its climax on the pitch, Mitrovic was on the sideline trying to make sure that he could participate.
This action ascended Mitrovic’s status infinitely among the supporters. The striker was willing to put his life on the line for the badge sewed into the black and white stripes. While it’s not realistic to ask players for this sort of sacrifice, it sure is reassuring to see, especially with relegation looming.
This summer when I sat down to watch Mitrovic in the group stage of the World Cup, I was caught off guard a bit. Surely there’s a name for the phenomenon which I am about to apply to Mitrovic’s situation, but frankly I have no idea what it is called. The idea is that the longer you don’t see a person, the more you build them up in your head. In the process, you forget their flaws and instead embellish their strengths.
So as I tuned into to Serbia’s first group game against Costa Rica, I thoroughly expected to see Aleksandar Mitrovic spearhead the Serbian attack. After not watching Mitrovic play for a long time, I expected Mitrovic to be a thorn in the opposition’s side.
Given all the hype about Mitrovic during his time away from Newcastle, I found myself disappointed by Mitrovic and even more so by my own memory. Mitrovic was never going to live up to the hype that my brain had built up (through no fault of his own). But even after throwing all my preconceived notions out the window, he did look incredibly subdued compared to his usual self. He didn’t seem like the passionate player that scored that goal against Sunderland a few years back.
Over the years, Mitrovic has divided opinion like few others can. At times, some have questioned his ability and even more have questioned his temperament. The connection between his ability and temperament is rarely ever explored however. If anything, most people believe that his ability as a footballer is hindered tremendously by his temperament.
However, his showing at the World Cup along with his press interviews really paints a different picture.
During the August of 2017, Mitrovic revealed that his friends and him were once “dropping rocks at the train as it came towards the bridge.” They all tried but it was only Mitrovic’s throw that resulted in a smashed window.
Whether he knows it or not, this situation perfectly summarizes Aleksandar Mitrovic. Among a group of edgy kids, what set Mitrovic apart was his lethal combination of passion and ability. Every kid in that group had the passion part down but couldn’t match Mitrovic in terms of ability.
On the field, the role of passion and ability might be reversed but the essence of the combination remains. Mitrovic might not be the most graceful footballer in terms of ability and technique, but his passion keeps him competitive. His game revolves around this combination. So this summer when Mitrovic was out there playing like a tamed lion, his ability alone was not enough to keep him afloat against the outstanding competition.
As another example refer to his spell with Fulham. At quick glance, Mitrovic was scoring goals and staying out of trouble too. Based on this big picture, one could argue that Mitrovic has astounding ability that invalidates the importance of his edginess. In reality though, Mitrovic had that same edginess to his game during this time period.
Against Millwall, Mitrovic caught an opponent with an elbow and was lucky to escape the debacle unpunished. In another match, Mitrovic continually outdid the opposition’s defender and flexed his biceps in reference to an earlier confrontation that the two had.
The incompatibility of Mitrovic and Rafa Benitez will ensure that the Serbian walks out the door to the displeasure of some fans and the relief of others. Rafa Benitez is an incredibly methodical manager and Mitrovic, with his necessary edginess, is too much of a wild-card for Benitez’s comfort.
Having been a naive Mitrovic optimist for the longest time, I am resigned to the situation. Asking Mitrovic to not be passionate/edgy is simply not feasible. It’s an essential part of his game.
With that said, best of luck to Aleksandar Mitrovic, the hero that Newcastle deserves, but not the one it needs right now.